He was always called OldJohn - not Old John, as that would have missed
the slide of the pronunciation that defined the man.
He lived on a path that lead to a dirt road that lead to a county road
that lead to a state road that lead to the turnpike - so he was well
located in SouthEast Pennsyltucky, where I grew up.
Some say that OldJohn is naught but a myth.
Most of those people are from Away.
I met him.
He was a great big burly grey haired man who seemed ancient to me when
I was twelve - he looked probably as old then as I do now.
He lived alone, that much is true - but it is not true that he cooked
and ate children - because he neither cooked, nor ate me.
I met him.
He was a nice man.
On the south side of town there was an expanse of trees uninterrupted
by development and not thought fit for agriculture, which was the main
activity of my small town.
It was called, "The Big Woods".
There were rumored to be several hermits living in those woods - and a
few of those rumors were true.
There was Nature Boy, who chose to live his whole life naked, even
though the Winter would make such a choice hard. Every once in a
while he would run into the South End of town and cause a ruckus.
There was Charlie Harple, who was said to be so crazy that he could
not ever go to town.
I lived three doors up from his Mom - I believed that.
Then, there was OldJohn - rumored to cook and eat children.
The Big Woods was owned by several families, as you would imagine.
The wonderful thing about it was that everyone was allowed to hunt and
fish there. There were no warning signs to keep anyone off - which
was not the case with most of the farm land around the town.
This was before we heard much of lawyers and insurance men. The truly
As a child, I could walk out of my house and be in hunting country in
about fifteen minutes.
On a clear and cold November morning in 1962 I found myself off of the
county road and onto the dirt road - and finally onto the path that
lead to OldJohn's place.
I had a single shot Ithaca 12 Gauge with me, so I felt pretty safe -
for a bit.
In those days we still hunted ruffed grouse, although they were losing
their territory, even then. The unsophisticated among us hunted the
Chinese imported pheasant, although I had no taste for them, even
I was an epicure of twelve years and only wanted a timberdoodle for my
bag - the Woodcock - an elusive little bastard who favored
That is how I wound up in OldJohn's yard.
He lived along the only creek that ran through The Big Woods - and he
had two buildings there.
On this day, in November of 1962, I was working the marsh lands that
bordered the creek near OldJohn's domicile.
"Who is that?"
A voice cried while I stood, stock still, beside a Pin Oak.
"Who is that?"
Again. I had no sense of where the voice came from.
"It's Tom Watson, Sir, hunting woodcock."
"You'll get no woodcock here, young fella - they've been poisoned by
"That's not true. I shot one here a week ago."
"Did you now - step out from behind that tree."
I didn't think myself to be behind a tree but I moved a short distance
away from the Pin Oak.
"Was it a long beak?"
"Was it what?"
"Was it a long beak, child, or was it a female?
"Are you LongJohn?"
When he moved into my sight it was all of a sudden, as though he was
not there one second and was the next.
"Was it a female, child?"
I was so much entranced by his bigness and his burliness and his
greyness that I may have stepped back a bit.
"Yes, child, I am whom you call LongJohn."
I swear that I was not frightened - he seemed, on the face of it, such
a pleasant looking man.
And then he laughed.
What a great and wonderful laugh. Not the careful and restrained
laugh of my uncles - but something open and free and embracing.
The laugh of a truly happy man.
Was this the man who cooked and ate children?
"Port arms. boy - and why are you hunting woodcock with a twelve
He seemed so big, yet so full of good feeling.
"That's all I own, LongJohn."
"Well, that's good enough for me. Come to the hut, you look in need
of a drink."
And so I walked to the hut of the child eating LongJohn, with a
shotgun in my hand and nothing but curiosity in my heart.
"You are Tom?"
"You are Tom Watson's son?"
""His grandson, Sir."
"Well enough - I went to Grammar School with him."
"Is he well?"
"He's dead, Sir."
"He never ate well."
"Thomas, I am seventy eight years old and I have lived in these woods
for more than fifty years."
"And every year there has been a young fellow like you who has walked
into my woods to pick up my goods."
"Your goods, Sir?"
"My goods, indeed. Let's walk to the shop."
And so we did, into a shop such as I have never seen before or since.
OldJohn had harnessed up the little creek that ran through his place
and set it to running as many slapwheels and jillywogs as you could
see in the most modern Amish shop (although I learned later that
OldJohn had been born and raised an Episcopalian) and on each and
every table and each and every bench there were wooden toys and parts
of toys sitting, either fully painted, or waiting for paint - in all
the colors of Christmas - Red, Green and White.
He had two tablesaws and two bandsaws and three lathes and everything
was spinning and working - with no apparent help from a living being.
It was obvious that the slapwheels ran continuously and their
susserant slapping sound was of such volume and insistence that I felt
that I must walk outside, to catch my bearings.
"Every late November, for more than fifty years, a young man such as
yourself has come to my shop to take away my goods."
"Yes, Sir. But there are so many."
"Tom Watson. You are only twelve years old. Have you already lost
your belief in magic?"
"Yes, Sir. I mean, no, Sir"
"Hold out your hand."
I did, but my eyes were closed, as I feared to look."
"Close your hand and open it when you get home."
"Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir.
And he was gone.
I walked directly back home - keeping my fist closed and paying as
little attention the apparent laughter of the trees as I could.
When I was home and in my room, I let my hand open.
I swear that I saw a puff of frost of white and red and green - and
full of laughter. And it was gone so fast that I wondered if I'd ever
I never saw LongJohn again. They say that those that see him only see
When the newspaper came out the following Saturday, it said that, as
usual, the Orphan's Home on the North side of town had been visited
with a great lot of wooden toys, from an anonymous donor - just as it
had been for more than fifty years.
You can say what you want.
But I swear that this is true.
Tom Watson - WoodDorker